Bookish Musings for July 2021

This past month has been a strange one for me (for the rest of the world too, possibly, but I’ll stick to what I know best). It was composed of roughly four quarters/weeks. The first was extremely busy at work with a major event (which went well, but exhausted me). The second was spent recovering from the aforementioned major event, catching up on home life and cautiously venturing forth into the Big City. The third was phenomenally busy but exhilarating with the online British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School, which made me realise how much I enjoy the literary life and wish I could spend all my days on it. And the fourth was going back to work, trying to catch up on everything while suffering one of my huge three-four day migraines.

So overall, it’s been the kind of month where my head felt very ‘ouch’ (both literally and metaphorically) and I struggled to concentrate on any reading or reviewing. I feel very far behind on just about everything. But I do want to recapture some of the sheer glee of the third week of July, when I lived in a literary bubble that consisted not just of myself, but many other people equally passionate about words and cultures, about comma splices and sounds and rhythms. Rather than a lone madness, I had the pleasure and privilege of experiencing a folie √† deux – or rather, folie √† plusieurs, which is much more fun!

My brain is currently a jumble of ideas and sudden personal insights relating to books, reading, writing and translation, so I thought I’d jot some of them down here, while they are still fresh. Apologies for not having a nicely digested, thoughtful essay, but just random bullet points.

  1. I mentioned that several of the books I read in July were excellent, entertaining holiday reads, but not particularly memorable. However, I feel they deserve more credit than that.
    • The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton is a mix of cosy and serious crime, with older female amateur protagonists, published in 2015, well ahead of the current trend of precisely such crime novels, which seem to be taking the bestseller charts by storm, perhaps in the wake of one written by a likeable male TV celebrity. It’s hard to be ahead of a certain trend, isn’t it? To my mind, this book was better than several others in this subgenre.
    • Caro Ramsay’s The Tears of Angels is a well-written, impactful police procedural and, although I haven’t read others in the series (which made the large cast of characters a bit difficult to place at times), has a great sense of place. However, although there is a lot of talk of #TartanNoir (which this one is not, not exactly), it seems that Scotland is still not perceived as being as atmospheric as Iceland, Sweden or Norway. I’ve seen far too many mediocre ScandiNoir fiction lately, so it feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, rather than focusing on homegrown stuff of equal or mostly higher quality.
    • I’ve grown to like Joanna Cannon on Twitter, but am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of her books (although I have them all on my Kindle – which usually means: out of sight, out of mind – I am far more likely to grab something off my shelves). I thought her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was an intriguing mix of humour and grit, mostly seen through the eyes of a child, which is notoriously difficult to do. I thought she was quite clever in giving us the perspective of a child looking back, but also additional adult perspectives, which shows us events and interpretations that a child couldn’t possibly understand. And yet this breaks all the rules of what us wannabe novelists are told to do: don’t have too many points of view, don’t switch too much between timelines so as not to confuse the reader etc. By setting out all these rules, are publishers just setting themselves up for clones of whatever has been successful in the past?
    • There was a period in my late 20s and early 30s when all I read was crime fiction and Sophie Hannah was one of my favourites for the way she managed to write her way out of the most outrageous, impossible premise. Nowadays, I usually prefer crime with a social message, strong characterisation, atmospheric details, but every now and then I crave a thorough page-turner (if it has any of the above additional elements, then all the better) and am willing to suspend some disbelief for a book that will keep me up all night. It’s harder to do this than it looks, and it hurts me to say that Hannah herself seems to have lost this capability in the final stages of the execution. But one writer who seems to have taken over the mantle of this successfully is Catherine Ryan Howard. Her Nothing Man was one of the most appreciated books we ever had at the Virtual Crime Book Club, and I embarked almost immediately upon her lockdown thriller 56 Days, which is coming out imminently (and which fits none of my August reading plans, but rules are made to be broken, right?)

2. The Translation Summer School made me realise how much I belong to this ‘tribe’, i.e. of people who are fond of and curious about other languages and cultures, even if some of them got into translation by accident. To be fair, I think fewer and fewer are getting into literary translation by accident, unless they are particularly well connected, because it is becoming very competitive. Translation courses are becoming the new MFAs – yet I think there are very few translators who can make a living entirely out of their literary translations (hence perhaps the need to teach). In particular, there are still cultural institutions, funding and awarding bodies, publishers who distrust anyone who is not a ‘native English speaker’ for a literary translation, as if the (sometimes, not always) superior command and understanding of nuances in the source language is not as important as fluency in the target language. But many of us ‘immigrants’ or ‘non-natives’ have grown up with the English language, which has become a victim perhaps of its own imperial and corporate success. Given the recent brouhaha about accents on TV in the Olympic coverage, the myth of ‘proper English’ is still alive and well, although there has never been one unitary, commonly defined and monitored English language (unlike the Acad√©mie Fran√ßaise – which, incidentally, is looking increasingly out of touch, conservative and ridiculous), but many Englishes.

In addition to ‘who gets to translate’, there is also the issue of ‘what gets translated’. There is still far too much stereotyping of what the ‘the literature of a particular culture’ should look like, or what writing style will appeal to English language readers. There is far too much emphasis on what will sell among the big publishers, and it is left up to the small independent publishers, the ones who can least afford the risk of low sales, to educate readers and try to broaden their taste (or cater to a more diverse group of readers).

On a more cheery note, the Summer School made me realise how much I enjoy theatre and all the people who work in it (I was in the Multingual Theatre Translation stream and our tutor was the very thoughtful, encouraging and thoroughly engaging William Gregory). I was very active in theatre groups throughout school and university, and there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a coherent, beautiful whole emerge from a group effort, something that is so much better than the work of any individual, and that depends on each person performing at their best. The work of a translator is often very solitary, but this collaborative effort that is inevitable in theatre translation is something that appeals hugely to me, and I will try to keep it in my life somehow, if I can afford it. At the very least, my eight fellow theatre group participants and I are planning to keep in touch and meet up occasionally to continue sharing our play translations.

3. The joys and woes of indie publishing

In my upbeat moments, I tell myself that Corylus Books is doing great work, taking on lesser-known languages and the kinds of quirky, genre-busting works that I like to read myself and that many of my (online or not) friends tell me they too like to read. However, the sales figures tell another story. Although each one of our books thus far has received excellent reviews, it appears that English language readers are not ready for Balkan Noir, nor for crime fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the subgenres of police procedural or psychological thriller or spy thriller etc.

I don’t want to rubbish the crime fiction genre, which I truly love, and where so much great writing and experimentation is taking place. But I have to admit it is discouraging to see some of the very average and ‘samey’ offerings that are being churned out by the big publishers month after month, and which end up ranking very highly on the sales charts. Yes, maybe that is the sort of book that the wider public prefer, but I think it’s at least 50% due to the money they can afford to splurge on advertising and promotion, the connections they have to journalists and other media people, to festival organisers and celebrity endorsements etc. There is no point in being snobbish and saying that we are not influenced by the buzz: probably around 80% of readers are. It works, and that is why they do it. And if it doesn’t work for three out of ten titles, they can afford to swallow the losses, or the Amazon spokes in their wheels.

Last but not least, there is one aspect of being a small indie publisher that I hadn’t realised before (and probably should have). Namely, that if you are not a purveyor of literary fiction in translation, you are unlikely to have much chance of winning translation and publication grants from the source countries, or literary awards which can then increase sales and visibility (both are usually given to ‘works of literary merit’, which crime fiction is still not considered to be generally).

I’ve been in this position before, starting my own company, and know it can take a couple of years to find success. But at least back then, I was only tightening my own belt, while this time there are many other people that we are letting down if we don’t achieve at least a modest success. Ah well, we chose this path ourselves, so mustn’t grumble, as they say. We’ll find ways to access funding, pay our translators properly, market and distribute our books and promote our authors in innovative ways, overcoming the double barriers of Covid and Brexit.

Oh, and Happy National Day, Switzerland, miss you lots! Hop Suisse!

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Raven?

7e42f475d4f202bdd68eac647fceabf5_bigger (1)After a little business-related break, here is another installment in my series of interviews with crime fiction afficionados. Raven is the mysterious nom de plume of one of my favourite book reviewers, whose opinions have an uncanny tendency to match with mine. In real life (as if books were not real life?!), Raven is a bookseller as well as an avid reader and reviewer. And I am delighted to say that we are also comrades-in-arms as contributors to the Crime Fiction Lover website.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Thanks to the encouragement of my mum, a keen reader, who started me reading at a very early age, I have always been a regular library user, and surrounded by books. I remember dipping into mum’s fiction collection so started on Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Eric Ambler and possibly some others that weren’t entirely suitable for my age at that time! However, the real turning point for me in terms of my passion for crime fiction came with the early issuing of my adult library ticket, and discovering the as yet unexplored delights of what seemed to me a never ending wall of crime books in our local branch. Consequently, I remember some of my first discoveries including Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, William McIlvanney and Derek Raymond, and my crime reading career was forged in earnest from that point on.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

Thanks to my early reading experiences, I have a long-held affection for American crime fiction, not so much the more mainstream ‚Äėmass-produced‚Äô authors, but those that practice the noble art of sparsity and social awareness underscored with a nod to the dark side. So currently, I would cite authors such as George Pelecanos, Ryan David Jahn, Dennis Lehane, Frank Bill and Ace Atkins as among my more recent favourites. Likewise, I am an ardent fan of Scottish and Irish crime fiction, despite being neither, as this feeling of the darker side of the human psyche seems more in evidence in the police procedurals of this sub-genre. Also, with what I call ‘the Larsson effect‚Äô, I am positively lapping up the increasing availability of European crime fiction in translation, thanks to publishers such as Quercus, Europa Editions and Gallic Books et al, producing crime fiction that really ticks the boxes for me. Not one for cosy crime I must admit!

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex and Irene, I found astounding in both their execution, and different take on the crime fiction genre. With my natural propensity to veer towards the darker side of the human psyche, and the positively masochistic preference for the probing psychological read, he has been a real discovery.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

No quibbling on this one. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series would be firmly ensconced in my washed up, hopefully waterproof, trunk. Also one of my numerous boxes of books that I would try to rescue in a fire!

Huge_pile_of_booksWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

In the very lucky position of being an established crime reviewer and a bookseller, every day unveils a new reading treat, and a new or not so new author to read. Therefore, every new arrival on my crime radar is a treat in store and I particularly relish the discovery of a cracking new debut author. I look forward to reading them all, although I‚Äôm increasingly edgy about the new George Pelecanos collection not appearing until next year…

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

With my brilliant ‘day-job‚Äô as a bookseller, I am also a keen fiction reader, so actually spend an equal amount of my time recommending my fiction finds. I am an avid reader of classic and contemporary American fiction, less mainstream British fiction, Australian fiction, as well as European fiction in translation, and have a store of favourites from Elliot Perlman, Andrey Kurkov, Jim Crace, Magnus Mills, Gregory David Roberts, Ron Rash, Tim Winton and oh- countless others. When time allows I also enjoy an eclectic range of non-fiction titles, as I suddenly develop a strange interest in something, and am driven to read extensively about it. Reading is my passion and I love sharing this enthusiasm with anyone kind enough to listen!

Thank you, Raven, and that explains why your reviews speak to me so much – since you mention so many of my favourites: George Pelecanos, Ed McBain, Pierre Lemaitre… Looks like the dark side of crime fiction appeals to both of us. And of course we are all envious of your day job!

For previous revelations of reading passions, see here. And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.

January Reads

I’ve started the year in style and have done more reading than I would have thought possible. All the rain and darkness is paying off!

23 books – nearly as much as my best ever month, August 2013. Only this time I did have the children around. I must have locked them in a cupboard! (Only kidding: we often spent a cosy moment, all three of us on a sofa reading our separate books.)

Shaugnessy2 Poetry:

Brenda Shaughnessy: Our Andromeda       From playful to profound and moving, this book has it all. Additional claim to fame: had me in floods of tears while queuing at immigration counter in US.

Mahmoud Darwish: A River Dies of Thirst        More of a diary and notebook rather than finished poems, this is one to savour, full of beautiful quotes and thoughts.

Darwish(Why do I not do book reviews of poetry? And why do I read so little poetry in book form? I do read lots of it on the internet, though.)

2 Non Fiction:

Christian McEwen: World Enough and Time ¬† ¬† ¬†On the importance of slowing down for the creative process – a must-have for my ‘Hurry Up’ and extreme multitasker personality.

Rachel Cusk: A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother ¬† ¬† ¬†Polemical, brutally honest, perhaps limited First World and middle class experience, but eminently relate-able. And, unexpectedly, very funny!

2 in French: Andrei Makine

Claude Ragon: Du bois pour les cerceuils       To such lows do we sink when we are on holiday and have run out of books! Picked it up because it was set in the Jura mountains (where I live), but it was tedious.

1 in German: Erich Kästner

7 Translations:

Pieter Aspe: The Midas Murders

Sebastian Fitzek: Therapy

deathinthemuseumofmodernartAlma Lazarevska: Death in the Museum of Modern Art  Рreview forthcoming on Necessary Fiction         Stunning, very moving, economically and impeccably written.

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X

Ryu Murakami: Audition

Hamid Ismailov: The Dead Lake

Shuichi Yoshida: Villain

9 Others (Almost Exclusively Crime Fiction)

Peter Swanson: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart       

Alison Bruce: The Silence      Comfort reading, as I love Gary Goodhew and the Cambridge setting. A little disappointed by this one, though.

Martin Walker: Bruno, Chief of Police      Ditto as for above, except the setting is south-west of France.

Adrian Magson: The Watchman

Sarah Rayne: The Whispering

Simon Brett: The Strangling on Stage

poisonpawnPeggy Blair: The Poisoned Pawn       Review forthcoming on CFL. In one word: characters.

William McIlvaney: Laidlaw

Phil Hogan: A Pleasure and a Calling       Forthcoming. In one word: creepy.

Travelled to Boston, Bruges, the North Sea island of Sylt, Sarajevo, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Cambridge, the Dordogne, Somalia, Russia, Canada and Cuba, Kazakhstan, Glasgow, Palestine and several small fictional towns in South-East England. Oh, and the constellation of Andromeda!

Where will we go next in February? Can’t wait!

Modern German Classic: The Mussel Feast

MusselFeastWritten just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.

The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper. ¬†They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal. ¬†It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying. ¬†The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either. ¬†From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him. ¬†Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family. ¬†The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.

Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements. ¬†Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read. ¬†It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals ¬†to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of¬†¬†‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect. ¬†And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.

Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice. ¬†Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves. ¬†A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.

I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.

Their reaction surprised me a little.  OK, a lot!

They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’. ¬†Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well. ¬†The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English. ¬†It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Th...
English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at Former Check Point Charlie, Berlin. The photo documentation is permanently placed in the public. T√ľrk√ße: Berlin DuvarńĪ, 1989 sonbaharńĪ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)